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Conference News: Ethnic Inequalities and Public Sector Governance. Report of the International Conference organized by UNRISD, UNDP Latvia and the Latvian Ministry of Integration, 25–27 March 2004, Riga

12 Apr 2006



There is increasing recognition by scholars and policy makers that inequalities between groups constitute a more potent source of violent conflict than inequalities among individuals. When inequalities in income, wealth, and access to social services or political power coincide with group differences, ethnicity may assume importance in shaping choices and mobilizing individuals for collective action. Little is known about ethnic inequalities as they affect the public sector, although the latter plays a central role in resource allocation and identity formation. The stability, legitimacy and effectiveness of the public sector may be undermined if it fails to develop mechanisms to regulate difference, inequality and competition.

The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) initiated a project in 2002 to examine the complex ways ethnic diversity affects the constitution and management of the public sectors of multiethnic societies under formal democratic rule. The findings of this research were discussed in an international conference organized in Riga, Latvia, from 25 to 27 March 2004 by UNRISD, the office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Latvia and the Latvian Ministry of Integration. The conference attracted about 80 participants, drawn from international organizations, governments, the diplomatic community in Latvia, the media, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and academic institutions.

The research analysed the structure of ethnic cleavages, including variations within each group; collected empirical data on four public institutions - civil service, cabinet, parliament and party system; examined the rules that determine selection to these institutions; analysed whether the distribution of offices is ethnically balanced or uneven; and studied voter preferences in constituting these institutions. It also looked at the effectiveness of institutions and policy reforms for managing diversity and inequality. The research employed a typology that classifies countries according to their levels of ethnic polarization: those in which one ethnicity is overwhelmingly dominant; those with two or three main groups; and those in which the ethnic structure is fragmented. The last classification is further divided into two categories: cases of high levels of fragmentation and cases in which fragmentation offers a few large groups the potential to organize selective coalitions to influence access to the public sector. Fifteen countries were studied: Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Botswana, Ghana, Fiji, India, Kenya, Latvia, Lithuania, Malaysia, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Switzerland, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United Republic of Tanzania.

In their opening statements, the Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Rihard Piks (whose statement was read by the UNDP Resident Representative, Gabriele Köhler) and the Minister for Integration, Nils Muiznieks, stressed the importance of the conference for sharing experiences on social integration, especially in light of Latvia’s efforts at nation building and adoption of European Union (EU) laws on anti-discrimination and equality. In her own statement as UNDP’s Resident Representative, Gabriele Köhler underlined the value of comparing a large number of countries to shed new light on ethnicity, integration, participation and representation in public institutions; and hoped the conference would not only improve policy makers’ understanding of these issues, but that it would provide an opportunity to develop an international network on ethnicity and governance rooted in Latvia but reaching out to different parts of the world. UNRISD’s Director, Thandika Mkandawire, stressed the importance of understanding ethnic inequalities when dealing with public sector reforms, which have tended to focus on managerial and fiscal issues. The research coordinator, Yusuf Bangura, discussed the main findings of the research.

This issue of Conference News, available free of charge from UNRISD, is the final report of the international conference.